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James Harrell Headshot

Looking for Gold? Find the Rainbow

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At 6'4" and 200 pounds, I've always looked a bit out of place teaching kindergarten. Students teetered slightly above my knee, scissors were always a little too small, and I had to hunch over to write on the blackboard. Though on parent's night, it wasn't my size that surprised parents, but my gender. When I taught, I was the only male teacher in the entire 400 student school.

Starting in September, a new crop of teachers will be entering the classroom. These fresh-faced educators will be overwhelmingly white, female, middle class, and heterosexual. Across America, 84 percent of teachers are white females, despite the fact that American classrooms are more diverse than ever. Combine this information with the fact that students of color perform better with teachers of color (in both academic and social terms), and you have the recipe for a national crisis.

Students look to teachers as they define who they are, and it's common sense that students benefit from an education that is both culturally and socially reaffirming. For many students, especially this generation, the question of sexual and gender identity is shaping their identities and impacting their schooling at younger ages. Our students lack effective lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) role models and are forced to seek answers alone.

Currently, we do nothing to recruit, develop, and support our current generation of LGBT educators. By continuing status-quo recruitment and retainment strategies we are failing both students and educators. Students are deprived of teachers that may reflect their identities, while gay educators never even get to set foot in a classroom.

By focusing on the recruitment and development of LGBT teachers, school districts and other education organizations would send a two-fold message. First, LGBT teachers (and students) matter. Their voices are critical to the debates and ideas for education reform and effective, culturally-relevant teaching. Second, and most importantly, an LGBT identity does not prohibit success. The achievement gap between gay and straight students, specifically for gay students of color, is pronounced, systemic, and rarely discussed. By empowering gay educators to lead classrooms, we would provide diverse role models for all students and change the system that continues to fail so many gay youth.

Schools need to prioritize equitable interactions and create a supportive environment for all teachers, students, and staff. While that sounds like an intangible goal, an easy first step would be to stop firing gay teachers for simply being gay. News stories abound about teachers getting fired for whom they love, not their performance. Firing these teachers feeds into the notion that gays harm children. Though acceptance is growing, Gallup polls indicate that 46 percent of people would prohibit gays from teaching elementary school, often citing the false notion that gay men are pedophiles. In 2014, we still have mountains to climb.

Though the composition of straight/gay educators won't change overnight, attitudes and environments can shift. Tools, like the S.A.F.E. project, help promote a safe space for all adults and children. By deliberately focusing our teachers on equitable interactions, we will positively impact education. Ultimately, everyone's voice deserves to be heard, especially if that voice was once whispering in the closet.